Republicans are being blasted for turning the personal tragedy of Terri Schiavo's family into a national burlesque show - filled with political tap dancing, amazing feats and alternating laughter and tears.
And rightly so. They're the ones who led the charge to wrest control over Schiavo's fate from the hands of the Florida courts, where it had already been resolved, and start it roiling again in the federal courts. President George W. Bush rushed back from vacation to sign a bill allowing a federal judge to take over the case. And, while this was being done under the guise of taking a stand for human life, Republicans were really just pandering to their conservative Christian base.
Unfortunately, Republicans have no monopoly on playing craven games of political calculation. A handful of Democrats, such as Massachusetts' Barney Frank, argued against the power grab in the House, but other Democrats, still agonizing about losing the election over moral issues, laid down and let it happen. Almost as many voted for the bill allowing the federal courts to intervene in the case as voted against it. And in the Senate, where it would have taken only one senator to keep this train from rolling forward, no Democrat was willing to risk the political fallout that might come from stepping up and doing the right thing.
The shameless insinuation of politics into a family's most private affairs, and the timidity of those who could have stopped it, reminds me of another case not that long ago. That time Republicans were shouting the directions, while Democrats were driving the car.
I'm talking about the Elian Gonzalez case. You may remember he was the 6-year-old Cuban boy rescued at sea after a daring attempt by his mother and some other Cubans to reach Miami went awry. With his mother dead and his father in Cuba, federal immigration officials decided early on that the father should decide whether Elian stayed or went back home. And his father wanted him back.
But Elian's Miami relatives, egged on by Republicans and fanatical anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Miami, raised an uproar. Democrats, facing a battle for the White House between Vice President Al Gore and Bush, were hungry for Florida's electoral votes, and didn't want to anger Miami's voters.
So they played a cynical game. Using Attorney General Janet Reno as its foil, Bill Clinton's administration pretended to follow the law, while in fact it was stalling on returning Elian to Cuba, to show its sympathy for the voters in Miami. The administration had a number of opportunities to send Elian home legally. Instead, it prolonged the drama, inviting the boy's hysterical relatives to keep going back to court.
In what looked like a break with the administration's position, but was actually supported by the administration's actions, Gore urged Congress to intervene and grant Elian permanent-resident status. This would have taken his case out of the hands of immigration officials and the federal courts, who said Elian should be sent home, and put it in the hands of the Florida courts, which were more sympathetic to keeping him here. Sound familiar?
But it was a ruse, intended to buy political points for the Democrats. The shenanigans ultimately backfired when the nation witnessed the emotional seizure of Elian by federal agents.
Like Congress' power grab in the Schiavo case this week, Elian's seizure coincidentally came just before Easter. It should have served as a warning to politicians about the dangers of inserting themselves into private family disputes for wholly political reasons.
I guess they forgot. The Democrats didn't get what they wanted from the Elian Gonzalez case: Gore lost the election. And, with the polls showing most Americans think the politicians should have stayed out of the Schiavo case, this could hurt the Republicans the next time around.
© 2005 Newsday, Inc.